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Democracy Hacked: How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics
Democracy Hacked: How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics
Democracy Hacked: How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics
Ebook381 pages4 hours

Democracy Hacked: How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



About this ebook

Technology has fractured democracy, and now there’s no going back.

All around the world, the fringes have stormed the palace of the elites and unleashed data miners, dark ads and bots on an unwitting public. After years of soundbites about connecting people, the social media giants are only just beginning to admit to the scale of the problem.

We stand on the precipice of an era where switching your mobile platform will have more impact on your life than switching your government. Where freedom and privacy are seen as incompatible with social well-being and transparency. Where your attention is sold to the highest bidder.

Our laws don’t cover what is happening and our politicians don’t understand it. But if we don’t fight to change the system now, we may not get another chance.
Release dateSep 27, 2018
Democracy Hacked: How Technology is Destabilising Global Politics

Martin Moore

Martin Moore is a Leader of the UNIX Expert Support Team, Hewlett Packard Corporation. Martin Moore has led Compaq Computer (now HP) Corporation's UNIX expert support team since 1997. He has been a UNIX system administrator and consultant since 1992, and is an expert in UNIX security, performance tuning, and Tru64 UNIX internals.

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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    This is a well written book that provides background on how the digital age is, and has been, influenced and manipulated by the political sphere. However, the focus appears to be a bit left of center. If you feel that Republicans and Russians hacked the 2016 election, this book is for you. If you're looking to find an equally critical story on the Obama social media minions, this book will not fulfill - aside from a brief discussion on White House social media propaganda. Overall, Moore offers an informing story that helps the reader understand how democracy has been hacked by the digital age, and who some of the main players are, both public and private.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I read the “Proof” edition of this book. It is an excellent treatise of the political & information warfare developing in our current Digital Age throughout our world. I believe this is the best book available on these issues. I couldn’t put the book down. It is perhaps the only book I have ever read completely over a three day period. The text is clear and without a wasted word. And the issues pertaining to our democracy which affect everyone in the free world are covered in detailing these issues.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Democracy Hacked is a serious look at the changes the digital revolution has brought to mainstream media and the rise of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media has rewritten the rules for political campaigns - not necessarily for the betterment of our democratic institutions. The authors look at how individuals fostered through these two platforms collective action action authoritarian regimes in Africa, the Middle East, and to some extent Russia (although there the government took control of social media). Unfortunately, technology abled fringe groups and centralized governments to control and modify information The beneficiaries have been primarily autocratic governments and the plutocrats who have money and resources to control what we see and hear. It is not a pretty picture. The power of authorities to take our digital information and use it leads to discrimination, police attention, and will lead to further inequalities. Democracy has clearly been hacked by botnets, dark ads, data mining, and micro targeting. it is up to us to see that it is rehacked. As this book clearly shows, it will not be easy.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I entered the LibraryThing Early Reviewers lottery for an advance copy of Martin Moore’s Democracy Hacked because I sought to become better informed about the threats to our political system and national security posed by cyber mischief. The reading served that purpose well-enough for me, although not completely.Moore’s 35 pages of bibliographic endnotes document a modestly ambitious effort to explore the subject of “political turmoil and information warfare in the digital age.” Readers need not have much technical knowledge to follow his story. He organizes the first chapters around three types of hacker culprits: individuals (persons not interested in constructive dialogue, but rather in the disruption they might cause), plutocrats (i.e., groups funded by rich individuals with political agendas), and foreign states. There have always been persons or groups who, for whatever their reasons, would like to throw monkey wrenches into the workings of our politics. The new departure is that now they can be so much more effective. Sophistication is not necessarily required. Any individual with a little ingenuity and time can create misinformation and seek to propagate it via click bait, links, likes, retweets, bots, and so on. Online approaches can have more impact than print because they can achieve broader distribution with little or no marginal costs, often with instantaneous messaging.More technically knowledgeable agents of political manipulation may apply additional, potentially more powerful, tools. They do not need to break into opponents' file cabinets when they can remotely steal emails instead. They can target specific voters with selected provocative messages, based on personality and behavioral profiles constructed via Facebook or Google information, for example. The deliberate misinformation propagated online would be less nefarious if we, the audience, were more rigorous in assessing the credibility of what we read there. Moore laments the “hollowing out” of traditional journalism, as the numbers of professionally trained reporters and editors have shrunk drastically nationwide as advertising revenue streams have migrated to the internet. He suggests that the number of internal communications specialists (public relations personnel with self-serving messages to promote) is now greater than the number of professional journalists. “Neither the Murdoch method nor the Breitbart method is journalism as taught in journalism schools,” he writes. “It is not about approaching a story with an open mind, or aspiring to the principle of objectivity.” Instead, it starts with a political objective.Perhaps striking to many older adults, young people, especially, are highly reliant on social media and websites for their news. Moore reports that in 26 countries in 2016 more than half of young people used social media, primarily Facebook, as their chief source.Moore addresses the impact of hacking on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “No one organization or method swung the election,” he concludes, although he acknowledges the Russian efforts. He notes that the Russians have attempted to engineer politics in other states for a long time, that the main difference is that their methods have now become more effective. He also recognizes that the U.S. has long interfered in Russian (and previously Soviet) politics as well. (For different views of the Russian impact on the 2016 election those interested might refer to Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Our Investigative Reporters Explain the Trump-Russia Story,” in The New York Times, September 27, 2018. See also, “Russia Won,” by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. October 1, 2018. Mayer relies extensively on Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania.)Nation states have not only interfered in the internal politics of other nations but also, perhaps more insidiously, many have applied the internet and social media for authoritarian ends at home. Moore points to usual suspects such as Singapore, China, and Russia, among others. India presents a notable example of a nation with the potential capacity for “super surveillance.” Citizens are assigned unique identifiers (the Aadhaar system) that may be used to track a broad range of their activities.Moore also identifies several more positive examples of state-sponsored cyber democracy initiatives. Among them are developments that enable people to politically engage more constructively in the UK, Paris, Brazil, Iceland, Estonia, and elsewhere. He concedes, however, that for the most part these have been tangential to mainstream democratic politics.Even well-intentioned initiatives to apply the internet and social media democratically for the general welfare can go awry. One risk is that technical platforms created to serve, for instance, health, education, or transportation may become “baked in” so that single (or a few) private providers have control.Democracy Hacked disappoints on one front. There is nothing of substance on the hacking of vote counts, voter registration rolls, or the associated electronic systems that support election operations. The exclusion may be justified by the lack of any reliable findings that such interferences occurred on any significant scale in 2016. Yet potentially such hacks pose the greatest threats of all. One can readily imagine the chaos and loss of confidence in democracy that might result, for instance, if a state’s election results had to be discarded entirely because of significant corruptions in vote counts. An obvious lesson that we should already have learned is that the internet and social media are not inherently democratizing. Moore concludes, “For the moment, at least, the future is up for grabs. It depends on what each democratic society and its representatives decide to do.”
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Martin Moore, "director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power" in Britain, has provided quite a pessimistic account of digital social media in terms of its effect on traditional democratic processes. He maintains that "a public sphere characterized by certain unspoken rules--respect, temperateness, civility, an aspiration to truth--has been blown wide open . . . " (p.253). In part this is because "Keeping the middle ground, searching for consensus, and seeking to mollify rather than excite are not winning strategies of Facebook" (p.114) or other social media. Instead, to be noticed, one must shock. Hyperpartisanship, the distorted, and the false are prized.Moore explains the very complex process by which ads are sold and paid for on the internet by Google and Facebook and thus why it is so difficult to reject deliberately misleading messages. He explains much more from the Media Research Center financially supported by Robert Mercer to the notorious Cambridge Analytica to contemporary Russian disinformation campaigns so similar to KGB activities in the Soviet era.Moore offers only few and vague solutions to these clear threats to our political system. In some way that he does not clearly explain, Estonia has managed to get modern communications right while Singapore, India, China, the Philippines, Britain, and the U. S. have not. Thus the book's contribution is to make us more aware of the danger. I found the author to be less than entertaining is parts, but to have made an entirely plausible argument.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I think this book should be must reading for everyone! I learned about how Google and Facebook put money over everything else. Mr. Moore tells us about the hackers, the system failures, and what he feels are some of the fixes for the system. This book opened my eyes to how the internet works and the adage "there is no free lunch" really applies to this the internet.

Book preview

Democracy Hacked - Martin Moore


There is a washed-out old colour photograph, taken in autumn 1974, of my family sitting in an orange Triumph convertible. I am sitting in the back seat, aged four, wearing a Davy Crockett hat, looking chilly and a little grumpy. My dad and my elder sister are squeezed in the back with me, while my baby brother is sitting on my mum’s lap in the front passenger seat. Stuck on the door of the car is my dad’s campaign poster for the upcoming general election. It was his second as a candidate – his first having been only seven months earlier – and we were out leafleting, door-knocking and canvassing constituents. I cannot imagine I was much help but, over the course of the campaign, my dad was determined to knock on every door in the constituency. When – or rather if – someone opened it, he would make his pitch and hear what they wanted from a candidate. The script, if you could call it that, was his own, and the only help and direction he received from central office was a national campaign guide, containing a list of general policy statements from the party.

That world is coming to an end. This is not meant as a sort of ‘The End is Nigh’ sandwich board slogan. But the democracy of long-established, rigidly hierarchical, centrist parties is collapsing. The idea that we should entrust the job of informing people about news and politics to an exclusive group of news outlets is disappearing. The concept of sporadic political representation through occasional elections is losing its legitimacy. And, the idea that we could ignore politics most of the time – and be ignored in return – is fading into a sepia past.

Almost half a century on, political campaigning is virtually unrecognizable. Official campaigns are powered centrally by mountains of voter data, run through complex algorithmic models, and used to micro-target messages to the most sought-after voters. You are no longer an anonymous resident of 43 Belvedere Avenue. You are known by hundreds of ‘data points’ that capture what you buy, what you earn, what you read, what you watch, who you know and what you care about. Merge this with campaign survey data and a candidate will know whether to lavish you with attention, appeal to you for a donation, or perhaps even discourage you from going out to vote. Unofficial campaigns – those fought by wealthy individuals and organizations, by pressure groups and by us, the great unwashed public – have changed even more. We all now have access to such an arsenal of digital tools that we can take up arms and fight for our own message on the same battlefield.

Already, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 has been written off by some as a peculiar confluence of circumstances, a freak black-swan event that will not be repeated. But political surprises are becoming the norm. Before the election of Donald Trump there was Narendra Modi’s Indian landslide in 2014, Rodrigo Duterte’s shock win in the Philippines in May 2016 and the Brexit vote a month later. After Trump there was Emmanuel Macron’s ascension in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s double-digit swing in the UK election the same year and M5S’s rise to dominance in Italy in 2018. You might say there are good material reasons for people’s anger at the political establishment and frustration with the neo-liberal global financial order. Or that these surprises are an ongoing response to the global economic rupture of 2008, and the twin spectres of climate change and mass migration. But there has been similar anger and frustration before, with much more predictable political outcomes. No, these political surprises – and there will be more – cannot be understood without recognizing the fundamental transformation of our communications environment.

The revolution in digital communications – the collapse of news media and the rise of dominant tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter – is buffeting our elections, capsizing conventional candidates and drowning centrist parties. More than that, it is restructuring our politics, undermining existing institutions and remaking the role of the citizen. It is creating openings for those who previously had none, space in which to sidestep norms, rules and established practices, and opportunities for gaming and distortion. If we are to have any chance of determining the type of political system that will emerge from this maelstrom, then we need to start by trying to understand it.

The political upheavals of 2011 were the first proper sign of the scale of disruption, though democratic governments drew the wrong conclusions from them. Across North Africa and the Middle East, citizens used digital tools like Facebook and Twitter to incubate protest and coordinate collective action against authoritarian and autocratic governments. Watching these revolutions unfold, democratic governments, and those running the digital platforms, congratulated themselves. Their mistake was to assume that their tools were inherently democratizing, when technology was simply enabling new ways of pursuing political ends. Those who saw how politically powerful these platforms could be, and used digital tools to pursue their political aims, benefited disproportionately. It did not matter if these aims were democratic, autocratic or anarchistic.

Authoritarian governments, scared to death by what happened that year, took a very different lesson from the Arab Spring, and sought to tame and domesticate the net. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government looked to impose digital sovereignty, requiring that all personal data of Russian citizens be held within Russia, and forcing all blogs with a readership of over three thousand visitors a day (not much bigger than a decent Instagram account) to register as regulated media organizations. In Iran, President Rouhani set about building a national internet, complete with its own government-approved domestic sites, the first stage of which was completed by the end of 2017. The Chinese government already had the Great Firewall and Great Shield to police the net, but extended and deepened its methods of control, experimenting with even more invasive systems like Social Credit.

The year 2016 should have been our wake-up call. Our old democratic systems are just as prone to being gamed. This is not a partisan political point, though some will undoubtedly interpret it as such. What became clear in 2016 was that those who consciously sought to upend the status quo, and who used digital tools to do so, had far greater success than they would have had at any other point over the previous half century. This is why the three types of ‘hackers’ who successfully distorted the 2016 US election – individuals, plutocrats and foreign states – ought to be seen not as anomalies, but as models for what is coming next. Seeing them as models allows us to understand how they did what they did, what helped them do it, and how others can do the same, whether this means deploying memetic warfare tools, amassing vast voter data sets, developing sophisticated behavioural targeting methods, or poisoning the democratic well with false information. These methods, like the digital ecosystem generally, are not unique to any particular political persuasion, though they work better for those at the extremes than those in the centre, for those wanting to transgress political principles and conventions, and for those willing to ignore ethical norms.

None of the hackers could have done what they did had politics not migrated online. We get our political information online, we join and like political campaigns online, we donate to political causes online, we sign online petitions, and some of us even vote online. We have already seen the first campaign in the UK to put almost all [of its] money into digital communication, according to the director of the UK’s official Vote Leave campaign after the 2016 Brexit referendum. It is rare now to find a political consultancy that does not sell itself on its data, digital and social media skills. Cambridge Analytica achieved global infamy for the amount of digital personal data it collected and used to target voters, but it was hardly unique.

These models might have remained distinct to the US, except for the fact that politics has not only migrated online, but onto a handful of transnational digital platforms. Techniques and tools pioneered in America can as easily be tried in Britain, Germany, India, Malaysia or Brazil. Though each country’s political context is different, the same communications platforms are dominant in almost all. Amongst these, three stand pre-eminent: Facebook (and its subsidiaries WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger), Alphabet (notably Google and YouTube) and Twitter. Together these have become the virtual public sphere, though a world away from the one imagined by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas when he first popularized the term.

Of the three, Facebook became the platform of choice for political campaigners. It is not hard to see why. By 2018 Facebook had well over two billion active users and in some countries had become almost synonymous with the internet. Across South and East Asia, for example – in Thailand, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Indonesia – more than eight out of ten people on the internet were also on Facebook.

Democratic systems had begun to feel its full force in 2012, when Facebook turned itself into the world’s most powerful propaganda machine. This was not due to any Machiavellian master plan, or because Mark Zuckerberg entertained ambitions to be US president. It was more banal than that. Facebook needed to justify its valuation and fund its ambition to connect the world. To do this it leveraged its most valuable assets – reach, attention and personal information – to produce the tools that would allow commercial advertisers to target their customers with unprecedented accuracy and efficiency. It was not the social media platform’s intention that these same tools should be used by political parties, activists, extremists or those determined to sow political chaos. Like the scientists who developed nuclear fission without predicting the frightening breadth of destructive uses to which it would later be put, the engineers at Facebook just built the most effective advertising service they could.

Anyway, those engineers might argue, it was not Facebook that first developed the surveillance-based, behaviour-driven advertising model that powered content and communication on the net. It was Google. Since 2000, Google had carefully constructed the largest, fastest, most sophisticated, most automated and most ludicrously complicated advertising superstructure ever known. The whole thing was built so as to minimize human involvement and maximize the latent power of algorithms and the market. So fantastically interlinked was it that an ad could target someone wherever they were in the world, almost wherever they were on the web, with the message most likely to make them click, at the lowest possible cost. Looked at from the perspective of an advertiser, this sounds fabulous. Looked at from the perspective of democracy, where a propagandist of any persuasion can reach the most susceptible (or vulnerable) voter at the most opportunistic moment with the message most likely to provoke a reaction, it is not quite so appealing. The system was so open and frictionless that it couldn’t easily distinguish between an ad selling facial cream and an ad selling fascism.

The faster and more virtual our political communication and information systems have become, the more weightless they have become, constantly flitting to keep up with our wayward attention. As we consume information and news more quickly, skimming Twitter, dipping into Instagram, leaping in and out of WhatsApp, so we lose track of what has substance and what does not. At the same time, in the background, our stolid, flawed, necessary mechanisms for reporting the news and separating the weighty from the weightless have shrunk and withered.

As democratic governments started to gauge the extent of political disruption caused by digital platforms in the years after 2016, they floundered in trying to find ways in which to respond. Some hoped that the market would act as a self-correcting mechanism. Others decided it was time for the state to step in and take greater control of the net. The real question is, where will democracies go next? Based on their reactions so far, they look like they will splinter in three directions: towards platform democracy; towards surveillance democracy; and towards a re-formed – ‘rehacked’ – digital democracy. In the first, digital platforms will become even more powerful than they currently are, such that they become gateways not just to commercial services, but to public services like healthcare, education and transport. In this scenario, switching digital platform in the future could have a greater effect on citizens’ lives than changing their elected government. In the second scenario, the state will ascribe far more power to itself, such that it has much greater ability to watch, nudge and direct its citizens. Necessarily, in this model, many of the freedoms that citizens currently enjoy will be much more constrained. Both these directions – towards an etiolated government or towards an over-powerful state – have long been seen as innate frailties of democracy. Way back in 1861, at the start of the US Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked Congress whether there was in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness. Must a government, Lincoln said, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence? The digital communications revolution, and the rise of the tech giants, makes this question urgent once again.

There is a third direction, which is towards a rehacked democracy for the digital age. Those that want to head in this direction will need to rethink what democracy – perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs – really means, and what aspects of it need protecting. Having figured this out, they will need to radically reform their current political systems and redistribute power in a way that many incumbents will not like. This will mean electing political leaders who have foresight, bravery and acumen.

We are at what communications scholar Robert McChesney has called a critical juncture. A growing number of people are recognizing that our democratic political systems are no longer working as they should. Equally, we are coming to realize that the digital platforms we thought were supporting and enhancing these systems are actually undermining and reshaping them. Democratic governments and policy makers have come late to this realization, prompted by mounting evidence of political abuse of the platforms. Yet, as they learn about this abuse, so, despite their limited understanding, they rush collectively to respond. A little learning, the poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1709, is a dang’rous thing: / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. So it is with government responses at this critical juncture. Some sniff the dangers of digital disruption and hare off in the wrong direction. Others invest further responsibility in the platforms themselves, trusting them to figure out how to fix politics in the digital sphere. Going in either of these directions will hasten the demise of liberal democracy and usher in a new political era: an era that may be more efficient and convenient, but will also be less tolerant, less forgiving and less free. We can take a different path, where we allow democracy to evolve  such that it benefits from digital technology but is not directed by it, and where we renew people’s faith in the efficacy of democratic political systems, but only if we act now.

Part 1



Individuals: the Freextremist Model

Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong – we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat—!

William Golding, Lord of the Flies

In the weeks before the elections to the Bundestag in September 2017, a group of German extremists were conspiring online to raise support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and to suppress votes for its mainstream opponents. More than five thousand of them were members of a private, anonymous internet chat channel called Reconquista Germania. There they discussed how to use technology to coordinate their activities, how to hijack the agenda on social media, to mob established politicians, to attack mainstream media, to synchronize social networking raids, and to nurture the normalization of hateful and prejudicial language and images in political debate.

When they were ready, at the beginning of September 2017, the group announced publicly that it was opening the meme war against the half-breeds in parliament.¹ Blitzkrieg Against the Old Parties! one of the members screamed online. Another called for the storming of the offices of the German news outlet Der Spiegel. On a separate internet channel, called #Infokrieg or Infowar, there were chatrooms devoted to developing extremist political propaganda and discussing strategies to game Twitter. In parallel, on an online imageboard on the website 4chan, German users were building up a library of inflammatory images with slogans ready to spread across social media. In one section of the German subforum called ‘meme jihad’, Buzzfeed reported, members posted links to YouTube videos explaining how to make extremist content go viral.² Some of these images used Japanese anime, and many included Pepe the Frog, while others deliberately referenced Nazi and anti-Semitic imagery. Elsewhere on the same website, researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found, members shared psychological operations resources, for use during the 2017 German election campaign, such as a ‘step by step how to manipulate narratives’ that links to GCHQ online deception and disruption playbooks

Despite their limited numbers, these extremists were able to have a distorting and damaging impact on the German election. They took down an aspiring politician, raised ‘patriotic videos’ to the top of YouTube’s plays, and repeatedly gamed social media. In the two-week run-up to the election, the ISD discovered, not a single day passed when #AfD was not in the top two trending hashtags in Germany. The aim was not just to mobilize the far right, but to militarize political discourse online, smother other voices and stifle turnout for the mainstream parties. In early September, before these groups became highly active, the AfD was lying fifth in the polls. At the election itself it came third, winning 13.3% of the vote, exceeding most polls and expectations, and enabling a far-right party to enter the Bundestag for the first time since 1961.

If this was unique, then we could probably ignore it and assume that it will not happen next time, or elsewhere. But the strategies and techniques had been used before September 2017 and have been used since. They have become part of a toolkit used by ideologues, mercenaries and political footsoldiers to try to hack democratic politics and elections. Though the toolkit has been enthusiastically and energetically adopted by the far right, it is not particular to one country, nor to one specific political ideology. Indeed, many of the methods are straightforward and accessible to anyone with the time and inclination. How did we get here? How do we find ourselves in a place where democratic processes and norms have degenerated into open conflict across digital platforms? A place where political campaigners trade psy-ops manuals, discuss open source intelligence techniques and talk about memetic warfare; where people produce bot armies in their bedrooms; and where online campaigners race to ‘own the political narrative’, or to flood the digital public sphere with their hyper-partisan perspective.

To understand where we have got to, we have to trace the thread back before the election cycles of 2016–17, before the development of social media, before even the invention of the World Wide Web. Follow the trail back and you discover that being able to navigate round existing societal norms and values, coordinate collective action at speed, and undermining existing power structures, was baked into the original structures of the internet. Of course, back then there was no sense that doing this was political – in the real-world sense. It was just how you did things on the net. Cyberspace was separate from the real world – the ‘meatspace’. In cyberspace, decisions were made differently; communities were self-governing and made up their own rules; nation states and corporations held little sway. Few of the early settlers in cyberspace anticipated that the virtual population would soon rival or even exceed that in the real world. Few thought that the practices and beliefs that governed their communities would harden into ideologies. And it would have been anathema for them to think that these online communities would ever start fighting one another, or that these battles could spill over into mainstream politics, or – heaven forbid – that democratic systems could be upended as a result. Indeed, those who bought into the ideals of cyberspace – the engineers, the idealists and the digital homesteaders back in the 1980s world of the DeLorean and Space Invaders – were characterized by their digital optimism. The future they conceived was a utopia.


In November 1984, in an old military base by the Rodeo Lagoon just north of San Francisco, 150 hackers got together for a three-day conference organized by Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. It had been over a decade since Brand published the last edition of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog in 1971, and he had just embarked on a new project to catalogue the burgeoning world of computer software. The original Whole Earth Catalog, pulled together by Brand from offices in Menlo Park between 1968 and 1971, was a hotchpotch of counter-cultural how-tos coupled with a dash of consumerism and tech utopianism, all bound together in an oversized print volume. It managed to mash together everything from fixing a Volkswagen to growing your own marijuana, from finding a deerskin jacket to using the new Hewlett-Packard calculator. It was like an early version of the hyperlinked web but in print. Or, as Apple’s founder Steve Jobs said in 2011, It was sort of like Google in paperback form.

For someone who has had such a profound influence on the modern world, Stewart Brand is remarkably little known outside Silicon Valley. Three times, in three decades, Brand managed to draw together seemingly disparate cultural threads and cohere the voice of a new generation: in the late 1960s with his Whole Earth Catalog, in the 1980s through the hackers’ conference and the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, and in the 1990s with Wired magazine (again organized with Kevin Kelly). Brand encapsulated, both in who he was and in what he did, the seemingly contradictory Californian Ideology – as defined by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron back in 1995 – of the marriage of the freewheeling alternative generation with tech innovation and free-market entrepreneurialism.

When Brand organized the first-ever hackers’ conference in 1984, he was seeing how the ideals he had managed to connect in the Whole Earth Catalog transferred to the world of computers. He was exploring whether the spirit of the 1960s Merry Pranksters that he had captured in print was reflected in the ethics and sensibilities of the growing community of entrepreneurial computer geeks. In particular, he was seeing if these hackers embraced the Hacker Ethic that was described in a new book by Steven Levy.⁵ Levy, who was at the conference himself – nervously watching participants leaf through his freshly printed book – had identified six ethics, from Access to computers . . . should be unlimited and total through to Computers can change your life for the better. All of them struck a chord. But the one that best captured the ideology of the hackers, that melded the individual geeks into a wider collective, and that would prove the most revolutionary, was the second, that All information should be free. As Fred Turner writes in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Like the mystical energy that was supposed to circulate through the communes of the back-to-the-land movement, binding its members to one another, information was to circulate openly through the community of hackers, simultaneously freeing them to act as individuals and binding them in a community of like minds.⁶ ‘Information’, as Levy described it, refers to code, and ‘free’ to its flow through the computing system, rather than to its cost. Indeed, some of the hackers at the conference emphasized that ‘free’ did not mean they could not charge for their work. Brand tried to make this distinction when he said to the participants that on the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable . . . On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. Yet, as happens with powerful ideas, this distinction soon got lost, leaving the belief that ‘all information should be free’ as the first catechism of internet citizens, or netizens.

While the hacker community was emerging in the 1970s and early 1980s, John Perry Barlow was writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead, and running the Bar Cross Land and Livestock Company in Wyoming. You would not have thought that, in between writing songs and cattle ranching, Barlow would become an early migrant to cyberspace. And had it not been for Steward Brand, he probably would not have done. But, following the hackers’ conference Brand and Larry Brilliant set up the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link or WELL. The WELL was essentially an early text-based bulletin board, where subscribers could post topics and others could respond. While Brilliant sorted out the technology, Brand gathered together the community. Given his munificent social network this turned out to be an eclectic mix of hackers, journalists, writers, musicians and lyricists. Much like the communes of the 1960s, Brand wanted this community to be open, uninhibited and self-governing. Barlow, who joined the Grateful Dead’s David Gans on the WELL in 1987, was immediately captivated by it. Cyberspace, Barlow thought, was a new, unexplored territory, an ‘electronic frontier’. Here he had the chance to experience the noble, essentially human, act of plunging off into unassayed wilderness, of going west to find gold and glory: something his parents and grandparents had done in the physical world, but which had so far been denied to his generation. Now, another frontier yawns before us, he wrote excitedly. This frontier, the Virtual World, offers opportunities and perils like none before. Entering it, we are engaging what will likely prove the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire.

So taken was Barlow by this idea of cyberspace as an unexplored land where he and fellow adventurers could go forth and settle, that he took strong exception when the old world intruded into the new. In 1990, when a small games book publisher was almost put out of business after the US Secret Service raided its offices and accessed its emails in search of a document (which was not there), Barlow and two others from the WELL formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation – to protect civil liberties in cyberspace. When, six years later, the US government tried to introduce a law that would punish the exchange of ‘obscene or indecent’ communications amongst those under eighteen, Barlow penned his infamous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind, Barlow wrote in Jeffersonian tones. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.⁷ Despite its gravitas, Barlow dashed it off over the course of a night in Davos, in the midst of the World Economic Forum, in between dances with graduate students.⁸ He published it online from Switzerland and, even in that pre-social-media era, it went viral. Even at this early stage in its evolution, the idea that the net was a new world that would be run by its inhabitants according to different rules than the old was magnetic and irresistible. So powerful was it that it gave birth to the second catechism of the net – that the inhabitants of cyberspace should be sovereign in their own land.

Not long after Barlow presented his declaration there was, just as he had predicted, an internet gold rush. Digital entrepreneurs, bloggers and prospectors rushed to settle this new-found land. Amongst the shopkeepers, self-promoters and innovators were pioneers wanting to set up new communities. Some of these took their lead from the early bulletin boards of the 1980s and 1990s, though each individual community was defined by the personal proclivities of its founder, and by whoever chose to settle there. Some sites evolved from the text-based format of bulletin boards into early weblogs like Memepool (1998); others distinguished themselves by letting people post images and text, like Fark (1999) and Something Awful (1999). One, set up a few years later in the summer of 2003 by Chris ‘moot’ Poole and called 4chan, looked similarly basic and homespun, though it had some distinctive characteristics. Characteristics which would, later, come to make all the difference.


It is impossible to explain the subsequent political impact of the 4chan community and the methods they devised without understanding how the site works. The architecture of the site and the way it functions are integral both to the way it was politicized and to its subsequent political impact.

4chan is an imageboard. This means that, to add something to the site, you have to post an image (or a video), beside which you can add comments. Others can then respond to your post with a comment, or another image and comment. There are no other ways to respond. You cannot, for example, like a post as on Facebook, or upvote it as on Reddit, or retweet it as on Twitter. If no-one responds, then your post quickly – very quickly – sinks down the page (and subsequent pages). A 2011 academic study found that most threads stayed on the home page for only five seconds, and on the site for less than five minutes.

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